“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself,” the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer counseled the young in his superb Naropa Unviersity commencement address. Only by accepting our own interior contradictions and dualities, he argued, are we liberated to put the shadow’s power in service of the good in the exterior world.
This seems like a particularly timely message, urgently needed in a culture intolerant of duality, where we hasten to polarize everything into good and bad, unfailingly placing ourselves in the former category and the Other — whether their otherness is manifested in race, gender, orientation, or sports team preference — in the latter. And yet the message is a timeless one, most piercingly articulated two millennia earlier in the writings of Marcus Aurelius — the last of Ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors and one of the most influential Stoic philosophers.
In his Meditations (public library | free ebook) — the same indispensable proto-blog that gave us the philosophic emperor on what his father taught him about honor and humility — Marcus Aurelius, translated here by Gregory Hays, offers a remarkable recipe for how to begin each day in order to live with maximum sanity and inner peace:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but of the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
Meditations, it bears repeating, is a requisite read in its entirety. Complement it with Seneca, a fellow Stoic, on how to fill the shortness of life with greater width of aliveness and Richard Feynman on the choice between good and evil.